When it comes to most types of cancer, Southeast Asia tends to have lower rates of incidence compared to the rest of the world. (1) What's their secret? Experts suspect that it may be something they're eating: turmeric, the main spice found in curry dishes. (1)
Also known as "Indian saffron," turmeric has been used for its healing properties in for centuries: For instance, it's used in a paste to heal wounds and as a tonic to soothe upset stomachs. (2) But modern scientists have recently turned their attention to the spice, releasing more than 3,000 publications on turmeric's health benefits over the past 25 years. (2) And for good reason: Researchers have identified a compound in turmeric called curcumin -- an antioxidant with a telltale yellow color -- is a powerful disease-fighter. (1, 3, 5)
In fact, a review of the existing research on turmeric by Sahdeo Prasad, Ph.D., from MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston ticks off a laundry list of benefits for the spice. Studies have found that turmeric has antibacterial, antiviral, antiseptic, and antiviral properties. It's also been shown to protect the heart and improve digestion -- as well as fend off numerous illnesses. (2)
Turmeric: The Anti-Cancer Alternative
One of the most exciting areas of research is the spice's role in cancer prevention. Several studies suggest that turmeric can prevent the development and slow the growth of certain cancers, including colon, skin, and stomach, in animals exposed to carcinogens. (2, 4) Researchers have found that turmeric and curcumin fights the disease on a number of different levels. In a study published in the journal Clinical Cancer Research, scientists analyzed the saliva of people with head and neck cancers before and after they chewed curcumin tablets. They found that the compound suppressed two cell-signaling pathways known to stimulate the growth of these cancers. (6)
Meanwhile, other laboratory research reveals that curcumin reduces the activity of epidermal growth factor receptors, which play a role in the spread of breast, prostate, and lung cancers. By blocking these receptors, proteins responsible for the proliferation cancerous cells aren't able to activate, thereby slowing the growth of tumors and the disease. (5)
Besides inhibiting cancer-promoting pathways, turmeric battles the disease on a variety of different channels. In a review of research published in the AAPS Journal, Jayaraj Ravindran, Ph.D., a researcher from MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston writes, "Our review shows that curcumin can kill a wide variety of cancer cells through diverse mechanisms." (1) A growing stack of research indicates that curcumin can encourage apoptosis, or the death of cancerous cells, which can prevent the growth of cancerous tumors in the body. (1) Curcumin binds to more than 30 different proteins, which may block cancer cells from transmitting factors important for their growth and activate pathways that lead to their death. What's more, Ravindran and his team identified more than 40 biomolecules involved with cell death that are influenced by curcumin. (1)
Because curcumin fights cancer on so many different levels, it's able to outsmart the disease and prevent cancer cells from developing a resistance to treatment -- a common problem for cancer researchers. As Ravindran writes in his review, "Because of the numerous mechanisms of cell death employed by cucurmin, it is possible that cells may not develop resistance to curcumin-induced cell death." (1) In another review of research on curcumin, researcher Muthu K. Shanmugam, Ph.D., of the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine at the National University of Singapore, agrees: "A plethora of in vitro and in vivo research together with clinical trials conducted over the past few decades substantiate the potential of curcumin as an anti-cancer agent ... Clinical trials with curcumin indicate safety, tolerability, non-toxicity (even up to doses of 8,000 milligrams per day), and efficacy." (5)
The Spice as a Cancer Fighter
Along with turmeric's role in preventing and fighting cancer, it also has a promising future as a cancer treatment. While curcumin induces death in cancerous cells, it doesn't have the same effect on healthy cells. (1) Although scientists aren't sure of the exact reason why, they believe that tumor cells may absorb more curcumin than healthy ones -- and the compound pervades the entire cell. (1) This makes curcumin "an attractive candidate for drug development," writes Ravindran. (1) In one small study, 21 patients with pancreatic cancer took 8 milligrams of curcumin daily for two months; researchers found that the compound inhibited tumor growth in some patients. (4) One patient even experienced a brief period of remission. (4) Clearly more research is needed but this is exciting stuff!
If you're interested in taking turmeric, speak with your doctor first. Some research suggests that it may counteract some treatments, inhibiting some chemotherapy drugs, such as doxorubicin for breast cancer. (4)
While cancer is a hot topic in turmeric research, scientists have also shown that the spice can protect against other ailments, too. Its anti-inflammatory effect may help ease the aching joints of those with arthritis. (7) In a study published in the journal Phytotherapy Research, people with rheumatoid arthritis took either 500 milligrams of curcumin or a pain medication (diclofenac sodium) daily. The researchers found that the curcumin group experienced more improvement in their symptoms than those on the traditional drug.
Turmeric has also been shown to have a beneficial effect on the brain, and may protect against the damage that leads to dementia. (2, 8) In fact, curcumin has been shown to slow the progression and improve the memory in patients with Alzheimer's disease, according to a review of studies published in the Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology. (8)
Besides combating these specific diseases, turmeric may improve your overall well-being and mood. Stress causes a drop in feel-good brain chemicals called serotonin and dopamine, and research shows that turmeric can buffer against this effect -- suggesting that the spice may help protect against depression. (2) It can also help improve digestion; animal research shows that it stimulates the production of bile and may help fend off ulcers. (2)
As if this wasn't enough, there's also a strong argument that turmeric can safeguard your heart. Studies show that turmeric has a relaxant effect on blood vessels, which can lower blood pressure, and improve cholesterol levels. (2) One study published in the American Journal of Cardiology showed that heart bypass patients who took four grams of curcumin a day were 65 percent less likely to suffer a subsequent heart attack than those who swallowed placebo pills. (9)
Getting More Turmeric in Your Diet
Has this long list of benefits motivated you to increase your intake? If you're considering taking a turmeric supplement, consult your physician. The supplement is contraindicated with some medications, such as warfarin and other blood thinners, as well as the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug indomethacin (4).
You can always get more turmeric in your diet by incorporating the spice into your meals. Add it to a variety of dishes, such eggs, vegetables, rice, soups, and stews. You can also brew it into an earthy-tasting tea or blend a little into a smoothie. Not only will you kick up the flavor, but you'll also increase the health benefits.
1. Ravindran J1, Prasad S, Aggarwal BB, "Curcumin and cancer cells: how many ways can curry kill tumor cells selectively?" AAPS J. 2009 Sep;11(3):495-51
2. Sahdeo Prasad and Bharat B. Aggarwal, "Turmeric, the Golden Spice," Herbal Medicine: Biomedical and Clinical Aspects, 2nd Edition, CRC Press, 2011
3. Bar-Sela G1, Epelbaum R, Schaffer M., "Curcumin as an anti-cancer agent: review of the gap between basic and clinical applications." Curr Med Chem. 2010;17(3):190-7.
4. "Turmeric," Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, https://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/integrative-medicine/herbs/turmeric
5. Shanmugam MK, "The multifaceted role of curcumin in cancer prevention and treatment," Molecules. 2015 Feb 5;20(2):2728-69
6. Suejung G. Kim, "Curcumin Treatment Suppresses IKKβ Kinase Activity of Salivary Cells of Patients with Head and Neck Cancer: A Pilot Study," Clin Cancer Res. 2011 Sep 15; 17(18): 5953-5961.
7. Chandran B1, "A randomized, pilot study to assess the efficacy and safety of curcumin in patients with active rheumatoid arthritis," Phytother Res. 2012 Nov;26(11):1719-25
8. Shrikant Mishra, "The effect of curcumin (turmeric) on Alzheimer's disease: An overview," Ann Indian Acad Neurol. 2008 Jan-Mar
9. Wanwarang Wongcharoen, "Effects of Curcuminoids on Frequency of Acute Myocardial Infarction After Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting," The American Journal of Cardiology, Volume 110, Issue 1, Pages 40-44